Eyes on the Prey: 22. The Child

Warnings: Graphical violenceeotp_wp_022_the-child

Somehow I ended up on this carriage.

I had been on a carriage already once, in the company of strangers, assigned for my own execution. It didn’t feel so much different back then, when I had no idea where it would lead me. Lead us. Now I had no idea as well, only that our destination was Solitude.

There had been a courier, hurrying in and out of the empty hall with a few coins extra he stuffed hastily into his belt, a small, wiry man like all the couriers that came to Jorrvaskr every day. Tilma weaselling down to the Harbinger’s quarters, carrying a parchment and a cup of tea.

And then there was shouting and slamming of doors and sudden, dreadful silence downstairs, and I cowered in my chair, the porridge suddenly a lukewarm lump of bitterness in my mouth that grew and expanded and made me choke, because it were Vilkas and Kodlak yelling at each other.

I hadn’t known that Vilkas was back. Somehow I had thought I could prepare myself, gather my thoughts and have breakfast before I went to our Harbinger and speak with him because I had promised. I had thought I could make myself believe it would help to explain myself like I had done it already once, and he would know what to do. He would give advice. I had thought that – perhaps – he would bring some sense into this mess. He was the Alpha, after all.

But Vilkas had beat me to it, and I blanched when Tilma told me that Kodlak wanted to see me – at once -, no smile hidden in the deep wrinkles of her face.

The men sat across of each other in Kodlak’s chamber, Vilkas in the place where I had felt so safe. The tension that quivered through the open door and the corridor was like headwind, impeding every step I made through the long aisle.

Standing outside the room, I heard the constrained murmurs that weren’t meant for my ears. Or perhaps they were.

“You’re not my master, Harbinger.”

“No, I’m not.” A dark voice, firm and calm. “I’m nobody’s master. But you see the necessity as well as I.”

“… where is my brother?”

“Shouldn’t you know? Didn’t he tell you?” There was a pause, too long for a casual question, and an edge in that dark voice, a short reprieve before the strike came, carefully aimed and calculated. “Haven’t you always been your brother’s master, Vilkas?” He didn’t give the man opportunity to answer, turned his gaze to the door. “Come in, Qhourian.”

The fury in Vilkas’ face ached in my bones. “Shriekwind Bastion,” I mumbled, my mouth dry as I stepped into the room. The air in the room was stale and too hot, reeking of too many too strong potions and sickness in old sweat, and I couldn’t not say it. Farkas had told me last night where today’s task would take him, when I was curled into my bedroll, his pillow under my head, and he wanted to talk and I didn’t. “Vampires. He’s with Skjor.” I bent my head. “Harbinger.” My breathing was shallow.

“Qhouri.” And the way he said my name, the calm in these deep grey eyes, the way he looked at me, acknowledged me… it made me relax against the doorframe. I could trust him. He didn’t want me any harm.

When he told me sternly what he had already told Vilkas before – that a little boy had been kidnapped and that he needed Vilkas and me to rescue him – I believed him, although everything in me screamed in defiance, my palms grew sweaty and I had to steady myself against the wall while trying to discern what this meant. But I believed the old man that we had to go, that no one else was available, believed him that every hour counted and that he needed us both and together for this job, Master-of-Arms and Dragonborn.

“Something’s strange about this,” he said. “It’s just a little boy. And his parents have nothing to press from them.”

Abductions like this happened, and the Companions had gone more than once on such rescue missions, but usually the victims were either relatives of wealthy merchants or nobles to extort a ransom, or they were held captive to press a competitor. In both cases, the prisoners weren’t in immediate danger despite the general ruthlessness of the gangs that were usually hired to execute these jobs, because a corpse lost much of its worth in such dealings.

But this case was different. The boy was the son of a farmer in Dragon Bridge, and no one there possessed anything that was worth this kind of effort. And the fact that the kidnappers didn’t hide in a cave or old ruins, but resided in an open camp on the desolate shores west of Solitude left another bad taste. Something was very wrong.

“I need you to do this,” Kodlak said sternly as he pointed out the location on the large map on his desk. And then he looked from Vilkas to me, his will tying us together, forcing us to acknowledge the mere presence of the other.

It was rare that Kodlak took personal interest in our daily work at all and even rarer that he allocated jobs by himself. We both knew that it wasn’t only competence, real or surmised, that made him do it now.

I lowered my head under his scrutiny. He believed that we were Companions enough to make this work, that we had something beyond our resentment. He believed this to be a chance. It was hard not to believe him.

But we were all our own masters, and he wouldn’t force us.

When I raised my gaze, I had clamped down on this feeling that itched under my skin, something between vague unease and blank terror. Vilkas met my eyes with ostensible calm, a single muscle twitching in his jaw, his intent obvious. He wanted me to make the decision and refuse, expected me to act on my instinct and take the blame.

Seeking confidence in the quiet serenity of our Harbinger, I straightened myself. I couldn’t let him do this. I wouldn’t let him take this last bit of control from me. “We’ll see it done, Kodlak,” I said. “In half an hour, at the stables?” For a moment he sat like frozen, but then he nodded slowly and stood up to leave.

Kodlak laid one hand on his shoulder, muscles tensing under the touch. “Do whatever possible. Whatever necessary,” he said gravely. Vilkas span around on his heels, defiance flaring over his face, through his whole posture before he reigned himself in. But Kodlak held his eyes, a silent duel of composure and patience against flaring temper under iron control, Harbinger against Master-of-Arms, father against son, until he lowered his head.

“As you wish, Harbinger.”

Vilkas stood stiffly in the doorway, apparently eager to end this meeting, but Kodlak didn’t yet let him go. Instead his other hand came down around my shoulder, heavy and warm, connecting us.

“Rescue this child. And when you’re back, come to me.”

Rescue this child. The order became my anchor during this unbearable journey, during the endless hours on the wooden bench of the carriage, every muscle aching from the never-ending rattling of wooden wheels on cobblestone. I didn’t know how to endure those days with that man, the close proximity, the long travel hours, all the daily arrangements that came with it. This wouldn’t be an easy job, nothing like storming a bandit camp or animal den and wiping out everything that lived. Nothing we could take all the aggression and frustration that quivered between us out on. That would have been easy.

But we had to rescue a child. We had to work together, with plan and strategy. We had to rely on each other. Perhaps this child, scared, alone and abused, would make it possible. If nothing else, this was something we shared, with the victim and with each other.

It would take two days until we reached Solitude, one and a half if we travelled through the night.

Long hours, endless hours in deadly silence, with no company but my own thoughts. Vilkas was no company. Not a single word was passed between us, none of us had anything to say. Only his eyes found me, occasionally and only for a second. Fleeting gazes, distant and casual and still protruding into my personal space. As if I were the object of an experiment he had to supervise, or it would go awfully awry. A wry twitching of his mouth, unreadable.

Vilkas started to sharpen his sword when we passed the Western Watchtower, the ruin and the crumpled bones of the dragon like an accusation. Something defensive was in the line of his back as he bent over his weapon, stiff and rigid, but the movements of his hands were like a caress.

I tried to retreat, tried to shut him out, didn’t care that I cowered in a corner of the bench with as much distance as possible, curled together like a wounded animal with my knees pressed to my chest. But there was nothing I could retreat to, the dry rasping of stone on steel scraped the skin off my nerves, and I hated myself that I let him unsettle me like this. Hated myself even more that I sat on this carriage just because Kodlak wanted me to and because I thought I had to prove my own free will.

The curse of our driver startled me into attention.

We had just passed the remains of a carriage, the wood burnt to ashes, three bodies scorched beyond recognition lying between broken dishes and charred food and clothes. One of them was too small to be an adult, the tiny corpse lying beneath one of its parents in a last embrace, still grasping the remains of a toy.

“Dragon,” the driver exclaimed, pointing at the victims while urging the horses to greater speed. “I wish someone would do something about these bastards. It’s becoming worse daily.” I didn’t need his explanation. The image burned behind my closed lids. More expectations, more accusations.

I lied to myself when I thought that Vilkas was the only problem, that everything would be fine if we only came to terms with each other. His hostility was only a symptom. The dead end I had manoeuvred my life into towered before me like a massive wall, I was right on track to crash straight into it and still gaining speed. No way to turn, no way forwards, no way back.

The trip to the Eldergleam Sanctuary had done me good, but it had been only a short escape, and nothing had changed. I still didn’t know how to go on, how to fulfil all these demands. With the Greybeards, I had accepted to be what I was. It all seemed so easy then. I could deal with myself, with these powers, the dragons and their souls. But I couldn’t deal with the ridiculous expectations of the people around me.

For Vilkas, the Dragonborn was a mythical hero, infallible and mighty, something like Talos or Martin Septim, and every time I had asked him for help, for his knowledge or advice, I had failed this image. The way Athis acknowledged me as the Dragon of the North and Aela pointed out that being not entirely human wasn’t so unusual with the Companions – it was more scary than reassuring. For all of them, I was always Dragonborn first and shield-sister second.

It’s an end to the evil, of all Skyrim’s foes. The melody tumbled in an endless, tantalising loop through my mind. People believed in these lines.

A faint, fleeting brush of fingertips against the back of my hand brought me back to the present and made me jerk with sudden alarm.

“Don’t.” A quiet murmur. I stared into Vilkas’ face that was startlingly close suddenly, eyes cold like the depths of a glacier, a breathless contact before he lowered his eyes to my arm that was slung around my knee. I had scratched open a wound and peeled off the slough from the shallow, scabbed lesion without recognising what I did, and a single drop of blood  ran down to my wrist and stained the leather of my pants.

The tip of his finger hovered as if he wanted to wipe it away.

“Gods, what in Oblivion is your problem?” I barked, set on edge by his intrusion. As if the whole atmosphere wasn’t itchy enough.

But he didn’t retreat, his glare and proximity nailing me to the spot. A shiver ran down my spine. “Have you slept with him?”

The question came calmly, nearly casually, and still it caught me completely off guard. “Have I… with whom?”

“My brother. Have you fucked him? You still reek of him.” I was speechless.

Divines. Of course I did, I had spent the night in Farkas’ room with my head on his pillow. Cursed werewolf senses. For a moment I wanted to laugh out loud due to the sheer absurdity of the situation, but I restrained myself. This wasn’t funny. Not at all, and he was dead serious.

“And that’s your business how?”

His lips curled downwards, full of malice. “He tends to sell himself short.”

This was ridiculous. I managed to give him a condescending grin. “Perhaps he was desperate after you ruined his fuck with Lina last night. Perhaps he just needed… some stress relief. Perhaps we both needed some stress relief.”

I held his gaze defiantly, and his guard went down in shock, only for a single moment, and I could look behind the façade and into the shadows behind his eyes. And beneath all the disgust and hate we felt for each other, there was fear. Pure, bottomless fear, and this discovery, the knowledge that I was able to hurt him as deep as he hurt me, it flared in a rush of power through my body.

“Your brother isn’t one of your whelps. And he certainly doesn’t need you to allocate him his women.”

His hands clenched and unclenched around his knees as if he had my throat between them, but the iron control was back, the veil of contempt I knew so well. His voice was a threatening growl. “You will not hurt him.”

I closed my eyes shortly, breathing deeply to calm myself. I couldn’t allow that this got out of hand, as much as I was tempted to dig in. “It’s not your business. For all I care be a pain in his ass when we get back, but I don’t have to answer to you.”

The glare I got was murderous, but then he retreated abruptly, settled back into his corner and stared into the distance, his fingers clenching around the hilt of his sword. Fury radiated from him in waves even I could sense.

I watched him pensively. He was a mystery to me, always had been, and everything I knew, from Farkas and from my own manifold dealings with him, was like a puzzle where the parts didn’t fit, no matter how I turned them. Sometimes he was so damned pushy it drove me mad, as if it was his right to dig into my life with his paranoia and control mania, while these barriers around him were always there, fences he used to reign himself in and keep everyone else out. Everyone but his brother.

I wondered what he was afraid of. If he really feared for Farkas.

And I wondered where all my anger had gone, why his accusations didn’t hurt any more, why I didn’t try to make him see his mistakes. He really believed I slept with his brother and used him for… whatever. With Farkas! Who had never come closer than I was comfortable with. Not once, and what he did in the privacy of his quarters didn’t affect me. I wasn’t his type, after all. The mere idea should make me furious, or at least embarrassed.

But I was neither, rather felt like being trapped in the eye of the storm, the laden silence between us seeping deceptively into my mind. The balance was frail, held together only by the task before us, and a breath, the twitch of an eye, a single word would topple it. Anticipation was all that was left.

I laid my forehead on my knees and tried to doze the hours away. At least he had stopped sharpening his sword.

Vilkas refused to rest, only jumped off the carriage when we took short breaks for the horses to feed and water them, stretching his muscles and pacing impatiently around the wagon, and when night fell, he told the driver curtly and against his protest to take a nap while he took the reigns. We reached Solitude late on the second day, stiff, frozen to the bones and tired out.

But neither of us had stocked up on necessary supplies in Whiterun, and as we had no idea in what condition we’d find the little boy, I had to make up for this omission, even when Vilkas marched off westwards as soon as the carriage stopped at the stables. He erred if he expected me to follow him like a dog on a leash.

After the necessary procurements, he was gone too far to catch up. I didn’t know if he’d march through the night or make camp, didn’t know either what exactly he planned when he reached our destination. And so I went on until I couldn’t see where to set my feet any more, spent a few hours in a shivering, half-attentive doze and reached the brigand’s camp just before dawn. Vilkas was already there, lying behind a narrow dune, his footprints in the wet sand along the shore visible from miles away.

I was glad to have found him. All that counted now was the fight before us and the fate of the boy we had to save.

He didn’t deign to recognise me, even when I dropped down beside him, his attention solely on the activities in the camp. The place wasn’t as badly chosen as we had thought – the wreck of a cargo vessel lay on the beach of a small peninsula, broken in halves, the stern with its large cabin providing excellent shelter. The weather had changed to our disadvantage, after the clear night a cold, pervasive sleet had begun to fall. That meant that only very few of the residents lingered outside, a couple of guards patrolling the outskirts, two more men in a makeshift tent made from raw pelts. We didn’t know how many of them were in the cabin, and when we’d have to find out, we would have to face them all at once. And we didn’t know where the little boy was held – perhaps in the cabin itself, perhaps in one of the lower decks, as at least some parts of them lay dry as well.

Vilkas didn’t move, didn’t speak, just stared, but I noticed the strain in him. The way he gritted his teeth, how his unsteady gaze focused on the scene below us, the tension in his muscles and how he carefully avoided to acknowledge my presence – that was more than just anger or annoyance, and it was more than the excitement before a fight.

Lying motionless on the wet, frozen sand made me shiver soon, and the bleary daylight slowly banishing the darkness from the eastern horizon didn’t spend any warmth either. We had to attack, now that some of them perhaps were still asleep or at least not fully prepared for combat.

“Should we get going?”

The man shot me an indifferent glance, as if he was astonished that I was even there. “No.” A small, empty vial dropped in front of my face. “You know what that is?” At least he talked to me now. The flask was pretty, made from a purplish glass and similar to those Arcadia used for her rare fragrances and oils, but I had never seen this certain type before. I shook my head.

“Skooma. Found it on the shore. I’ve watched them long enough to know that they’re addicts.” He crawled backwards out of the viewing range of the guards, then made for a group of narrow trees that would hide us and still provided enough of an overview not to be surprised.

“You will have to learn about it before you’re of any use in this fight.” I didn’t react to his challenge. All I knew was that Skooma was a drug and illegal.

“Skooma is a stimulant. It forces the user into a short-time high of strength and euphoria, the duration is dependent on the level of habituation. When the effect dwindles, the addict will fall into a state of self-hatred and lethargic aggression until he gets the next dose. I’m sure you know how that feels.” He watched me like a skeever in a snare, emotionless and neutral.

“We both know, Vilkas.” His words weren’t able to hurt me, not any more. My reaction made him lift a single brow. Yes, I knew how self-hatred felt, and he knew it too. But now was not the time for petty taunts.

“We have two problems with this group. First, they take their first dose of the day for breakfast, which is exactly now. No way to overwhelm them in that state. Second, skooma addicts are absolutely unpredictable, and not only during their highs. Their kidnapping of the boy was probably only an accident, and it’s equally possible that he’s long dead.

“People fighting on skooma are faster and stronger than everything you have encountered so far. They lose their reason, and they’re not easy to defeat one against one, but as a group they’re worse than a pack of sabrecats. Insanity combined with inhuman strength and speed, that’s nothing we can prepare for. Before we attack, we must know if the boy still lives and where he is to be able to protect him. And that’s your job.”

Thank the Divines that I had brought frost protection potions. The camp was only guarded on the land side – nobody expected an approach from the sea. I felt the cold when I got rid of my armour, and slid into the icy waters, but it didn’t affect me – I could have walked naked all the way to Winterhold and back, and the temperature still wouldn’t have matched the frost inside of me. All that mattered was the challenge… and the child. After circling around the guards I could easily swim to the wreck and climb onto the stern unseen. From the inside of the cabin I heard laughter and snoring and some people yelling at each other, but I also heard the muted weeping of a child’s voice. It seemed the boy was still alive, tied or shackled to the wall I pressed myself on.

Despite the potion my teeth chattered violently when I came back to our hiding place. Vilkas didn’t show any reaction when I slid out of the dripping tunic and breeches and changed into dry clothes, but he also didn’t turn away. I didn’t mind, his coldness made me nearly sigh with relief. There was nothing personal between us. We were like scissor blades, forced to join to fulfil a job.

I could just hope it would be enough.

“The boy still lives. He’s tied to the back wall. The lower deck seems to be empty.” The relieved exhalation behind me was a surprise.

The hours passed without a word. There was nothing to discuss. After some hectic activity in the morning even the camp seemed to have calmed down, nothing moved but the slow pacing of the guards.

Vilkas froze when the scream of a child broke the silence, highpitched and terrified, and I grabbed my bow and nocked an arrow purely out of instinct. But before I could make a decision, he ran past me with a feral roar, the fury that had boiled and grown beneath his controlled coldness for hours and days finally erupting.

But we had no strategy and no plan. We were aware that we weren’t used to fight with each other, to the other’s fighting style, to our mutual weaknesses and strengths. All we had was our goal, the determination to save this boy from the destroyed childhood that we shared. Nothing else mattered when our first arrows flew, taking out the guards.

Like predicted, this was nothing like any fight I had ever encountered. I was used to being outnumbered and to opponents larger, stronger and faster than me, but this was… chaos. These people were out of their mind, no caution or thought in their attacks, even a dragon was more predictable. They moved lightning fast and tripped over their own feet, their hits so strong that they were impossible to block, but they weren’t aimed carefully, striking at everything in their way. Their eyes were bleak and glazed, showing neither wrath nor fear and no indication of their intents. And they didn’t feel pain. It was worse than fighting undead.

Vilkas’ greatsword met the onslaught of the first three attackers all at once, tore through armour and flesh, leaving not much for me to do than to prevent that our enemies encircled us and to chase them back into his wide strikes. He fought with the same desperate, heedless aggression as them, let the fury consume him. For a moment I was certain he would lose it and change, let the beast take control over himself, but it didn’t happen – at least not visibly. But I saw the golden glimpse in his eyes, heard the howl coming from his lips, recognised his predatory gaze. He was the hunter, merciless and efficient, and everybody else was prey. Everybody including me.

We had to reach the child, had to find our way into the cabin. Vilkas stormed ahead, broke with sheer strength through a barrier of three fighters blocking the door. In the small moment I had to get an overview of the situation, I saw the tiny body shackled to the wall, his arms stretched beyond their limits and only his toes reaching the ground, shrill, panicked yells piercing the air. Two men at the back wall, clad in similar steel plate, identical mohawks, identical warpaint, both armed with huge, magically glowing warhammers. They dropped their vials after a last sip and unsheathed their weapons in identical motions when the Companion lunged for them.

The three at the door pressed me into action while the scene in the back still bound my attention. Frantically I tried to block erratic blows, hit a woman’s head at the temple while ramming the edge of my shield under the chin of a Redguard, heard and felt bones breaking twice. But the man came up again despite his destroyed jaw, I bowed towards him, crushed his Adam’s apple and windpipe and felt at the same time the tip of a blade pierce my shoulder from behind. I was lucky, it should have pierced my heart. From the corner of my eyes I saw Vilkas push the tip of his sword into the gap between a cuirass and a pauldron, dispatching one of his attackers. My arm became numb and the weapon fell from my grip, and spinning around I tore the shortsword of the man who had attacked me from behind from my flesh, felt it scrape along my shoulder blade. The bandit facing me laughed maniacally when I fell with a scream, laughed when I hammered my shield into the backs of his knees, still laughed when he tumbled into my lap and I slit his throat with his own sword.

Pain and dripping blood from a cut above my brow blurred my vision, but I needed to get up. The hilt of a warhammer and Vilkas’ huge sword were crossed in a duel of strength, drug against beastblood, directly in front of the boy. But the limp body lying in the corner behind them was stirring again despite the stab wound in his side, the first man Vilkas had brought down. He should have been dead but wasn’t, inhuman, artificial strength guiding him into another attack. He forced himself to his knees and to his feet, blood-dripping hands clenched around his enormous weapon, forced himself into a last attack with a brutal roar, bloody foam at his mouth. A deadly steelen weight swung in a wide circle, aimed for Vilkas’ head.

I didn’t have time to think. “WULD!”

I shot forwards, shoving the Companion out of the way of the hammer’s head. The squishing sound of the boy’s skull when it crushed like an eggshell, blood and brain on my face, in my mouth, everywhere.

“NOOO!”

The world moved on in slow-motion. We were a tangle of limbs and steel, Vilkas beneath me, yelling and struggling and shoving me away while I crashed a throat with my heel and broke a neck with my weight. He impaled the last man from behind, the huge body of the warrior embracing the small one of the child for a moment in a macabre hug before it slid to the ground.

Suddenly it was quiet, nothing audible but the wind howling around the wreck and through the gaps in the planks. I felt strangely light-headed when I took the scene in, the corpse of the boy, the corpses around us. We had failed. It didn’t go into my head. Everybody was dead, but the boy… the golden light flared up, unasked, unbidden, tickling in my palm as my fingers flexed around the gory mass that had been the tear-stained, frightened face of a child only moments ago.

Vilkas’ weapon fell from his grip, I heard it clank to the floor behind me.

“You killed him.”

“No.” My own tears made me blind.

“You killed him!”

I kept the spell up, panting, crying, until the meaning of his scream dropped slowly into my mind. The light between my hands died down as I propped myself against the wall, one corpse between my arms, another lying at my feet. Kodlak had told us to do everything possible. To do everything necessary, and still we had failed.

“You could have prevented this, Vilkas,” I whispered under my breath. It wasn’t my fault. It couldn’t be my fault, not again. I wouldn’t allow that he blamed me for saving his fucking life. “You could have saved him. But of course your stupid promise is more important than a life.” I paused for a moment, with closed eyes, my forehead leaning against my arm. “Gods, your brother is so much smarter than you…”

Only because I chose to turn my head, the stab wound in my shoulder searing up with sudden pain, I could watch him break. Understanding crept into his features when he grasped what I had said, what I knew, and the protective layer of his self-control shattered all of a sudden. A thousand fragments nothing would mend, not even the blood he would spill now.

A strangled sound came from his chest, and the backhanded slap of his gauntlet left deep gashes in my cheek before it clenched around my throat.

“You know nothing.” Desperate, furious, mindless bloodlust in his face. He pressed me against the wall, trapped and covered me with his weight, his hand clenching around my throat. Just like that first time, after the harvest festival, the only difference now that he’d strangle me. And that no one else was here to stop him.

My hands around his wrist, fighting against him with every bit of strength I had left, did nothing. I didn’t have the breath to scream or to shout, panic and pain numbing my senses.

My nose broke with a sickening crunch when he crashed his forehead into my face. And then the steel of his free hand pierced cold and sharp into my flesh, under the waistband of my pants, ripping, shredding the leather away, and I went limp in his grip.

No. Just kill me. Not this. Please.

“You killed him.” A manic grimace of hate and despair, the movements of his hand erratic, the other tightening around my throat. “You can’t… you don’t have the right!”

He screamed when the dam broke and his body was on mine and claimed it, flesh against flesh, a bare weapon, ready to destroy. He didn’t even hear my strangled, wordless begging.

“You know nothing!”

Blinding pain kept me conscious although my vision tunnelled from lack of air, and I watched him, heard him pant and cry against my skin, his face hidden in my neck that he still didn’t let go, felt the frantic bucking of his body into mine and his fingers tearing through the skin of my back in long, bleeding scratches, as if he searched for something to hold on to. “You will learn,” he whispered, and it was as if I observed us from somewhere outside, detached from my body and mind.

It didn’t matter who had killed the boy, someone had to pay the price, and this was the deal. One life for another, one soul for another. Nothing was left, no will to survive, no belief, no hope. Just pain, hate and humiliation.

It felt familiar. I should have known.

Release into the darkness only came when I heard the howl of a wolf on the run.

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

When the mind is barred against reality and the soul is shred to pieces, instincts still keep a body alive. I woke between corpses and there was blood everywhere, oozing from the wounds in my face, shoulder and back and running down my thighs, but I washed it away with fresh snow, frozen to the bones, because I didn’t want to stain the furs I wrapped myself into. Only my instincts and the skooma kept me going, made my feet move, step by step along the icy coast until I reached the road. My mind was closed down against the cold, the weather, the injuries and what had caused them, shut down from the world, but somehow my body survived through the snow and the agony.

I cursed him for it, for every breath, every searing pain and every sign of awareness when the first half-conscious thought broke through. When I woke up on a haypile in an empty box of Solitude’s stables, between horses and the mules of the carriage drivers. The wounds and scars were new, and they marked a stranger. When I saw my own charred face for the first time, a blurry reflection in a bowl of water, I hid my eyes beneath a layer of coal. Fridrika, the wife of Solitude’s stable master told me how they had found me, how I went berserk despite the injuries when her husband tried to carry me away, how it was impossible to take me into the city and to the temple. The healer hadn’t been able to touch me.

I knew myself well enough. Even if I wanted to, wanted so badly to dive into the darkness and never rise again in those half-aware moments, I knew I’d never be able to harm myself. I would carry on like I had always carried on, somehow. It was just one more closed room, one more key thrown away, one more period of my life I wouldn’t be able to touch again. I was used to it. Walls that had become brittle, walls I had torn down in moments of weakness and trust, they were rebuilt, more solid than ever.

I would not go crazy. Never again. Again, it was time to leave everything behind.

I didn’t answer their question, blocked off the intrusive inquisitiveness of their curiosity without bothering to be polite. No, I didn’t want to speak with the guards or the Jarl or a priest. No, I didn’t think anyone else was in danger, and I left the strangers’ care as soon as I was able to stand on my own feet again, took nothing with me but the old clothes they had clad me into and an iron dagger I stole from their workshop. To survive in the wilds with less than necessary, to endure cold and pain and hunger was a simple necessity. It didn’t affect me. My body was just an empty shell with nothing left to care for.

I travelled through the frozen land, stole what I needed, avoided the travellers on the road that led me southwards. They were few and far between anyway. To reach the little camp in Falkreath’s pine forest was like coming home. Here I had started over already once, all on my own. Here I had found back to myself and left Cheydinhal behind. Here I had nothing to think of but to keep myself alive, and here I would leave Whiterun and Jorrvaskr behind as well.

Destiny had pushed me out of this seclusion and forced me to get in contact again, to form bonds and establish trust. It had been a mistake. It had been just another lesson. Once I had sworn that my soul was mine alone, that I would never serve, never obey again. Now I was Dovahkiin, a woman with the soul of a dragon. But it was still mine. I would never again give it away.

I starved, and I froze. Not much game was out for the hunt during this time of year, even if the dense forest sheltered me from the worst of the blizzards and snowstorms. My traps stayed empty most of the time, and the brittle bones of rabbits and skeever were useless to make arrowheads of them. A lone wolf roamed around my camp for days, scraggy and famished. Even my simple knife was sharp enough to kill him when he caught himself in one of my snares, too weak already to break free. He didn’t snap at me any more when I approached him, and his eyes told me that the deliverance from his agony was mercy. Wolf eyes, their shine so frightening familiar. They haunted my sleep afterwards.

But I ate him regardless although his old, stringy meat tasted horrible like the meat of all predators, his mangy fur became blanket, cloak and armour all in one, his sinews the string for a new bow.

I lived off the land, ate frozen berries, roots and nuts I stole from the squirrels’ storages. An empty beehive from last year was a feast, the leftover honey used to sweeten the tea I made from willow bark, the brew the only means to ease the manifold aches that came with constant starvation. I ate everything, but most often I ate skeever, the vermin active even when everything else was dead, sleeping through the frost or had fled to the south. Their furs became mittens and footlets, I ate their meat, cooked their carcasses into a broth and sucked the marrow out of their bones.

I was weak, but I lived… somehow, and hunger and cold kept me from thinking. The future only reached to the next day, and every day I survived brought me further away from my past.

One morning, when I woke with a familiar weight on my feet and they were warm for the first time in weeks, I felt nearly something like joy. I didn’t know where he came from or how he had found me, but to have Snowback around was no burden although now I had to bring him through as well.

The seclusion of my camp surrounded me like a soothing shell, with only the dog as company, faithful, reliable and grateful. Hunger and cold were our constant companions through these wintry weeks, until I could count every single rib of my friend through his mangy fur, until my own cheeks were hollow, my lips charred and bloody and every little bruise took weeks to heal. I didn’t care any more for the magic I had learned. I had given up to be useful. But we fell back into the old familiar routines as if I’d never been away, defended our home against the wildlife looking for easy prey, and somehow I kept us alive.

Hunger and cold were accepted, they belonged to me, they were part of my existence. There was nothing else left. I did not look at the brightly lit windows in the distance, their invitation wasn’t meant for me. I did not miss the warmth of a fire, a door to close behind me, someone else’s steps in the snow or the sound of a voice. Not even my own. Nothing disturbed the silence around me but Snowback’s occasional whimper. The hunters that roamed the forest during the summer months were gone, riding out the frost and snow somewhere warm and safe, perhaps together, perhaps with their families. Often I spent days without hearing anything but the rustling of a falling leaf and my own breath.

The only sound sometimes disturbing me was the odd roar of a dragon thrumming through the sky. It rang like a bell, a booming blast of power, but I never saw them, sheltered from the vastness of the sky and the land by the woods around me, and their voice blew away on the wind if I waited long enough. They never stayed. They never hunted near me. They were as guarded of their souls as I.

My soul was as frozen as my surroundings, sturdy and stable like a glacier. I did not intend to thaw it ever again.

========================================

A/N: For the moment, Q. has safely reached the rock bottom of her journey. From now on it will go upwards.

Both ways. Through the snow (of course!).

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5 thoughts on “Eyes on the Prey: 22. The Child

  1. Oh, my gosh. You know, the first time I read this, what he actually did to her didn’t register with me. I thought he had just beaten and choked her. This chapter was tragic, disturbing, infuriating, and wonderful. Good job. I’m going to go cry myself to sleep now.

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